Aileen Hongo and Marilyn Montenegro
“I am 72 years old and I am tired, my body is tired, but I still must work 5 days a week. I am not allowed to retire.” Dee
Dee, like the 20 thousand other California prisoners over the age of 55, is not allowed to retire or even reduce her work hours. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) policy of full-time work for all prisoners disregards the widely accepted consensus that prison life ages people, and people in prison are physiologically ten or more years older than their chronological age. Prisons generally classify those past the age of 55 as elderly.
Regardless, even prisoners who are well into their 70s are still required to engage in “normal programming.” Refusal to work can result in a cascade of disciplinary actions, including the loss of “privileges,” which include access to phones and the prison canteen, visits, and packages. Some are placed in segregation. Without work, inmates have no way to purchase personal items the prison system doesn’t provide, like postage, toothpaste, toilet paper, or deodorant.
Prisoners are not eligible for Social Security or Medicare because the Social Security Administration suspends payments to anyone already earning benefits who is sentenced to more than 30 days’ incarceration. And even though they are required to file taxes while in prison, CDCR pays so little (between 08¢ and 52¢ per hour) for full-time work that incarcerated persons don’t earn enough to pay payroll taxes.
Diego, a 73-year-old kitchen worker rises before dawn, dresses quietly in his cold cell and walks across the dark prison yard to report for the early breakfast shift. His work requires standing for hours, frequent lifting, and moving boxes of bread, dairy and produce. At the end of each shift, his back, feet, and joints ache and he wonders how long he will be able to continue working.
Although those classified as permanently disabled by the prison medical department are exempt from the work requirement, prisoners report that such exemptions are difficult to obtain and not granted to people who have chronic diseases like arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, or age alone. The exact number of medical exemptions granted is not available.
Nationally, inmates aged 50 and older are the fastest growing segment of the inmate population, while the overall prison population is decreasing (Bureau of Prisons, 2018). Between 2000 and 2017, the share of prisoners aged 50 or older more than quintupled, from 4% to 23%, the result of harsh, lengthy prison sentences and mass incarceration during the “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s and 1990s.
Jenell, 76, works as a housing unit porter, mopping hallways, and cleaning showers. The work requires lifting heavy pails and scrubbing walls and shower floors, tasks she finds more physically challenging each day."
CURE-CA, a grassroots, all-volunteer, non-profit organization and member of the CURE national nonprofit network, is working to change CDCR policy to allow some older inmates to retire and others to be given part time work or volunteer assignments. CURE promotes restorative justice and the welfare of those enmeshed in the criminal justice system and is currently in the process of contacting concerned groups to gain information, ideas, and support for addressing the needs of imprisoned senior citizens. To learn more and support CURE-CA’s work, contact https://curecalifornia.org/
 Incarcerated people, like anyone else, have to file a tax return if they have enough income. Most incarcerated people have in-prison jobs that pay a very small amount of, and sometimes no, money. Most facilities “pay” you by putting credit in your commissary account. How Do You Go About About Filing Taxes When Incarcerated?
The authors, Aileen Hongo and Marilyn Montenegro, are members of CURE-CA.